30 March 2016

Postmodernity and Univocity

A review of Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus by Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

In recent years, John Duns Scotus has come under concerted attack from the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology. Until now, their treatment of the Subtle Doctor has met with surprisingly little resistance: those medievalists who know better have largely confined their critiques to specialist journals and have been ignored both by the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy and the wider theological world. However, in this little book the Franciscan Dan Horan offers a useful summary of both Radical Orthodoxy’s Scotus myth and the critiques of Scotus scholars in the hope of setting the record straight.

The structure is straightforward: In the first two chapters, Horan summarizes the charges laid against Scotus by Radical Orthodoxy, then outlines the influence of their account of Scotus on contemporary theology and beyond. Chapter 1, ‘Radical Orthodoxy’s Use of John Duns Scotus’, traces the development of the Scotus myth from John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock to Conor Cunningham, Graham Ward, and Gavin Hyman. Horan clearly shows how Radical Orthodoxy presents Scotus as the antithesis of Thomas Aquinas. Since their appropriation of Thomism is at the heart of their anti-secular project, we thus find Scotus being identified as the key figure in the emergence of modernity (John Milbank), the father of nihilism (Conor Cunningham), and even denounced as a heretic (Gavin Hyman). In chapter 2, Horan offers examples of the way in which Radical Orthodoxy’s Scotus story has been adopted by a wide range of contemporary theologians and philosophers, including Stanley Hauerwas, Charles Taylor, and Terry Eagleton.

The remaining chapters set out the case for the defence. Chapter 3 outlines the major critiques of Radical Orthodoxy’s understanding of Scotus’s theology. In summary, he argues that Milbank et al. have misunderstood Scotus’s doctrine of univocity. By treating what is essentially a semantic theory as a metaphysical one, they create the false impression that Scotus has reduced the difference between God and creatures to a merely quantitative one, thus fatally distorting Western theology and enabling the emergence of the concept of the secular. Furthermore, he points out that their entire narrative is dependent on a narrow range of secondary sources and shows little evidence of engagement with Scotus himself (beyond a few well-known texts available in translation in introductory readers). Horan concludes the case for the defence in chapter 4 by offering a corrective to Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of Scotus’s doctrine of univocity. Finally, in a brief conclusion, he suggests that far from being the root of all postmodern evil, Scotus may in fact offer contemporary theologians a constructive way forward in engaging with postmodern culture.

The book is not without its flaws. In particular, I found it rather repetitive. Strangely, he chooses to leave his explanation of univocity (and other crucial Scotist concepts) until after his substantive critique of Radical Orthodoxy’s view. As a result, he has to anticipate his explanation more than once while presenting his critique. The impression of repetitiveness is reinforced by his decision to structure his overview of Radical Orthodoxy via its key personalities rather than thematically. By contrast, his corrective explanation of Scotus felt rather compressed. It would also have been good for there to have been rather more in his conclusion about how Scotus might be used to develop an alternative to Radical Orthodoxy’s eccentric neo-Thomist agenda.

However, those are minor caveats. Horan has done the wider theological community an important service by making accessible the reservations of leading Scotus scholars and thus raising important questions about the foundations of Radical Orthodoxy. This book should be required reading for anyone seeking a critical understanding of Radical Orthodoxy.